Thursday, May 16, 2019

Book 181: The Blind Assassin



"You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn't necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones."

Dates read: October 10-15, 2017

Rating: 10/10

Lists/awards: The Booker Prize, Time Magazine All-Time 100 Novels

We're constantly telling the story of our lives. To other people, but most of all to ourselves. Amping up the parts that make us look good, glossing over the parts that make us look bad, editing out that parts that don't quite jibe with the character we want ourselves to be. No one likes to remember our worst moments, though those are the ones that creep into our heads at 2 a.m. when we can't sleep. But at the end of the day, all you can do is try to be better tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on and so forth.

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin starts with the end at the beginning: Iris Chase's sister, Laura, drives off a bridge in Iris's car. From that point on, we get three threads of story: (faux) newspaper accounts related to Iris's life, Iris looking back on her own life as an old woman and telling the story that leads up to what happened with her sister, and a story-within-a-story, called "The Blind Assassin", about a pair of secret lovers weaving a science fiction tale about a pair of secret lovers. Unveiled early on in the narrative through the newspaper accounts, it is revealed that shortly after her sister's death (which is ruled an accident), Iris's husband died. And then their daughter grew up with drug problems and succumbed to them, leaving her own child behind. And then that grandchild was raised not by Iris, but Iris's sister-in-law, who also died. Iris is old, and alone, and has no reason to hold on to her secrets anymore. So she starts to write.

She starts with the story of her grandparents, and the button factory her grandfather started in their small Canadian town, the profits from which rendered him suitable enough marriage material for her grandmother, from a society family in decline. When their three sons went off to war, only Iris's father came back. His wife, Iris and Laura's mother, was never especially healthy and died from complications from a miscarriage. Her father tries to keep the family business together through the Depression, but the Chases find themselves unable to even maintain their own finances, and that's how Iris finds herself married off to Richard, an older industrialist, in a deal that's supposed to keep the factory open and what's left of the family afloat. Instead, the entire Chase family capsizes, in their own ways.

After revisiting The Handmaid's Tale shortly before I read this book, and then reading this book itself, I was reminded what an incredibly gifted author Margaret Atwood is. To pull off the narrative structure of the book, with its intertwining threads and mysteries, is a fiendishly difficult task, but to do it while writing so beautifully and powerfully is the work of a master. It is a little jarring at the beginning, when you're first getting used to the path the book is taking you down, but it works. There were so many passages in this book that I marked, struck by how gorgeous the phrasing was. The characters, particularly Laura and Richard, were vivid, and Iris herself is someone we gradually come to understand as she tells her story and feels so real that when the book and her story end, the loss feels unusually poignant.

This is an incredible book: sad, yes, but told with such skill and in a way that keeps you wanting more and more...I had a hard time putting it down at night. I'm kicking myself that this is only my second Atwood and I'm really looking forward to getting into more of her work. As a heads up to potential readers, there is some really heavy stuff in here: parental death, spousal abuse, sexual abuse/rape...I think Atwood handles this material with sensitivity and grace, but it's something to be aware of. I'd recommend this book strongly, particularly for mature readers (there's nothing gratuitous, but there's a lot of darkness and I think it's a work that's best appreciated with a little life experience behind the reader).

One year ago, I was reading: The Heart of Everything That Is (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: If We Were Villains

Three years ago, I was reading: We Need to Talk About Kevin

4 comments:

  1. Great review--maybe you should write a novel...

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    1. Haha thanks! Sadly every creative writing class I've ever taken has reinforced the idea that fiction writing is not where my talents lie.

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  2. I love this book! Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read almost everything she’s written. Great review!

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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    1. I want to get to everything she's written eventually...what I have read is so great!

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